Cate Haight ACE on Editing The Sundance Hit Indie, Puzzle
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Alee Caldwell : Cate Haight ACE on Editing The Sundance Hit Indie, Puzzle
Cate Haight, ACE began exploring an editing career as many others have: logging footage as a production assistant. She then spent a decade learning and mastering the craft as an assistant editor before she went on to edit several notable TV series and films: the Amazon hit series Transparent (which landed her an Emmy nom), Mozart in the Jungle, New Girl, and 2013 Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee Afternoon Delight.
Cate Haight, ACE
Looking next to edit a drama, Cate was sent the script for Puzzle, the new film from director Marc Turtletaub (producer of Little Miss Sunshine and Safety Not Guaranteed) and writer Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy). The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival where the main view point is from Kelly Macdonald’s character, Agnes, a suburban mother who discovers competitive jigsaw puzzling and her talent for it. From this discovery, her life is opened in unexpected ways.
Puzzle landed one of the biggest deals at the fest this year, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for a reported $5 million.
Kelly Macdonald stars in Puzzle, photo courtesy Sundance Institute
I spoke with Cate about her approach to editing Puzzle, the responsibility felt as an editor to piece together the best story, and what she sees next for herself and editors following similar paths.
Creative COW: You've been to Sundance a few years now, so for someone like me who hasn't had that experience yet, what is it like?
Cate: Sundance is a ball, it’s really great! I love Sundance mostly because I meet so many people. Lots of people are cynical about it and talk about how it used to be so different. But I've never had anything but lovely experiences there. I find it to be really exciting and creatively energizing. Everywhere you go people are there because they love movies. It’s fun to just talk to the random people you meet on the shuttle or where ever about what they've seen that's good. I've always really enjoyed it and found it to be a really creatively supportive and exciting environment. This is my fourth year there.
You assisted for a decade, on TV shows like Pushing Daisies and films like The Day The Earth Stood Still before you made the transition to editor so you are quite familiar with the virtue of being patient. Would you say the definition of being patient has changed for you from your early career to now? What’s something you would tell your early self that you know now that you didn’t know then?
I would basically just say hang in there with what you hope to do. It will come, because the transition from assisting to editing is so...unclear. There’s no one specific path. I was, as many people are, frustrated with making that transition at times. But the key is to just hang in there and keep cutting cutting short films. Cutting whatever you can get your hands on. And yeah, I would just continue to encourage myself to hang in there and keep working at it cause the transition will happen.
Is that the same advice you would give yourself now or has that kinda changed, what you say when you are being patient now between gigs?
(Chuckling) That's a good question... Um yeah, I encourage myself, yes, to be patient and to be picky actually, with the projects that I choose. I am constantly reminding myself that it's okay to say no to projects. That other things will come along and not to take jobs out of fear.
I mean obviously it's a luxury for me because I don't have kids. I'm single, not married or anything, so I have that luxury. [I have the] patience to wait for the right project especially now when I don't have kids and can afford to do that. I try to remind myself of that a lot.
That's interesting that now you feel like it's more of a choosiness than a “it will come”.
Yeah! I’m pretty certain that I'm not gonna have to assist anymore. So that transition has fully come for me a few years ago. So for me now it's about making the right choices about the projects that I pick and waiting for the right ones to come along.
What goes into the kind of projects you like to pick now? What do you look for?
For me, I really liked stories about women. Or at least where the female characters are prevalent.
Those are the projects I'm mostly attracted to, stories about women, but I also am interested in working with good filmmakers, interesting filmmakers who are trying to do interesting work, challenging work. Whether it's challenging either in terms of the content -- in terms of the actual work itself -- but also in terms of what they are saying politically or what the film is about. I really respond to a script if it has characters who I care about. Who I’m interested in being in their life for the next nine months (laughing) Having them in MY life for the next however many months a movie takes.
For me, I just have to really respond to a script and love the characters and be interested in the story and feel it emotionally. Emotion is a huge part of it for me, I wanna feel something.
That’s so true that you have to be ready to live with those characters for however long you are going to be working on the film.
I've read the summary of what the film is about. Can you give me the elevator pitch for what Puzzle is NOT as a film?
(Laughing) It is not a superhero movie! Um...This is hard!
I love hearing as much about what decisions people have consciously made to not be as much as the decisions that they lean into -- I find that really insightful and interesting.
It is not a big story. It’s a really small human story. It’s the opposite of, I think, a lot of what's getting made now in terms of giant size fiction. Comic book, superhero, explosion, action, whatever, it’s the opposite of all that. It’s a very small human story about one women.
And a very small women in terms of her personality and presence in the world. The space she takes up in the world is small. It’s very grounded, very down to earth and a very simple story in a lot of ways, but also very complex. It's really human and it has a lot of moving parts emotionally. In terms of what's involved of a human beings life and that's all it is.
Cate and editor Gabriel Fleming (Blindspotting) on a panel with Avid at Sundance 2018
You wanted this film to be through Agnes’ point of view. Why is it important to you that the story be told from this vantage-point?
Because it’s her story completely that we’re telling. I think it's just really important that in movies with women about women, for women to be the subject and not just the object. Often times in movies women are just objects, they are not subjects. Agnes is very much the subject of this film. So I felt as an audience we want to 100% be in her shoes. In order to experience that you have to feel what she’s feeling and see what she’s seeing and sort of experience things through her eyes. In that sense it had to be her point of view.
It has me thinking about what you have said in the past about female gaze and where we see that in this film.
It’s all over the place even though it's a man who directed the film. It’s very much Agnes’ point of view and about Agnes’ desire for something more in her life, for something bigger, something different. And in that sense it’s very much her gaze, her point of view, her desire that we're hopefully experiencing as an audience.
In what ways do you hope viewers will be able to relate and empathize with Agnes' journey?
Well I hope everyone can relate to what Agnes is going through. I hope that everybody relates because this is the story about somebody who feels unseen and misunderstood, invisible in a way. She starts to find her voice and find her place in the world all through discovering something thats shes really good at, namely jigsaw puzzles. It just opens up her world in totally unexpected ways.
I think everyone can relate to feeling a little bit invisibile, misunderstood and taken for granted. That idea of being unseen and the desire to be seen, understood, appreciated and to live a life that's fulfilling.
I love how unanimously human that feeling is, everybody has experienced that.
Absolutely, and this is just one example of one woman's life but how something small can be sort of revolutionary within someone's own experience.
As the editor you are the first person to see the story coming together. What responsibility do you feel to the story?
It’s huge! My responsibility is huge in terms of the story. Editing is where we have to make sure that story that's on the page and then has been shot is working. That it’s tracking something as simple as that people are understanding the story. But also that we are feeling it, and experiencing it emotionally.
Specifically in this film from Agnes’ point of view. That we are experiencing what Agnes is going through, that it’s landing and it’s being effective. All of that ties all of the story together. It’s been said a million times that editing is the final rewrite -- that’s completely true. We cut a lot of stuff out. We added ADR lines to clarify things. We completely came up with a whole new ending in editorial. We ended up shooting an additional scene because it felt like we needed it as we got down the line with the film. We just needed one more little beat before we launched into the end of the film. All of that is related to the story and is obviously a huge component of my job.
I heard that the ending of the film was not what you had originally in the script, so what was the process to construct a new ending and know it’s hitting those beats?
[First] we tried to figure it out in our own heads. It was me and Marc, the director, and then for the last month of editing there was another editor who was on, his name is Joe Landauer. The three of us were really collaborating at the end to just try and determine what we, footage aside, wanted the ending to be, and then work backwards -- was there a way for us to construct that with the footage that we had.
And there was! Joe was a huge part of cracking it. I find it can be complicated when a new editor comes in for a million reasons. But he was an editor that Marc as a producer and director had worked with several times and we trusted him. I ended up loving working with [him]. It was a real collaboration, he’s a wonderful guy who was really collaborative and helpful.
It was really a reminder for me because I know this intellectually, but sometimes it's still hard; that a fresh set of eyes with new ideas and outside perspectives can really bring a whole new life to the editing room. Which he did, he just took the film and elevated it to the best it could be. We were 90% of the way there, but there were a few things we were still trying to figure out. That 10% took the movie to a whole ‘nother level that he was a big part of but, working together with me and Marc -- the three of us cracked the ending.
Was there anything else in the editing of this film that was a challenge or workflow process that you haven't done before in past films ?
One thing that was a little different was that we cut here in LA. They shot the film in New York, and then we moved to New York three weeks before we locked picture. Then we did our sound mix and our color timing there. I’ve never had to shift locals towards the end of the film but it was pretty painless.
My assistant Lynarion Hubbard, she did it flawlessly of course. Just moved copied media from one place to another. We were all back online within a couple of days in New York as though nothing happened. I’ve done all my work here in LA, so I didn't know the sound mixers or the colorists but it was wonderful. We had a really great experience and worked with some really talented people.
Puzzle director Marc Turtletaub, photo courtesy Sundance Institute
How has working with Marc Turtletaub been different than your past collaborations on projects?
Every project is different in terms of just learning how to communicate with whomever it is you are working with. But working with Marc was a dream honestly.
You know how it was different? When he showed up on the first day he said what are your hours when you are working on you own, what hours do you work?. I said I work from 10 in the morning to about 6 at night normally when I'm in dailies. And he said great! We'll work from 10-6, and that's what we did the whole time.
I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a lot of shows where the hours were not crazy. Marc was very much not interested in working insane hours. He's got a wife and two sons. They are grown but he’s very involved with his family and he’s got a life outside of work that's really important to him. So he was respectful of the fact that everybody else involved has that as well.
He was really collaborative and open to what I had to contribute. [He] specifically hired me because of what he thought I had to contribute. It was actually a lovely working environment and experience, we just had a great time. I mean, like anything you have your struggles in terms of when certain parts of the movie aren't working and so you are struggling with that, but we got along really well.
It was one of those movies where yes! I am in the right profession because this is really creatively fulfilling and also not insane hours. Which is great because I am a big believer in work-life balance, and I was really able to maintain it during this project.
That's so great and I feel that's sometimes rare to hear. In the film Agnes is trying to navigate her obligations while pursuing what fulfills her, how do you relate to that as a busy editor and pursuing the thing you love?
I fully wanted Agnes to go keep puzzling because it made her happy, right? That’s what I do, what editors do too. We just put puzzles together. Little pieces of something and that make a big picture, right? It brings me a lot of joy as well. Like I said, I really work hard on work-life balance. I prioritize the relationships in my life and I prioritize my work as well. I think I've managed to do it pretty well so far.
In a lot of ways they are similar because I think my work is part of my obligations. It helps that my boyfriend is also an editor. It's a lot of work talk at home. I think it's really helpful dating somebody who understands the obligations when the hours do get long.
I’m a really social person, so for me getting out of the cutting room and having a life is vital. It makes my editing better. You have to be able to live a life in order to represent other people's lives fairly on screen. Experiencing the emotions, the pain, the good, the bad and all of that stuff in order to really take that and pour it into your work.
That is so true. You have to get outside if you want to know what it's like.
In what ways do you push yourself to not become comfortable with what's been your status quo? How do you seek to challenge yourself and find change for yourself as an editor?
Whenever I'm looking for projects, I’m not necessarily looking for something that's going to challenge me in a different way, but I am looking for something that's the next step. Whether it’s a bigger budget or a longer shoot schedule or what feels like to me is the natural next step in my career and in my path.
Sometimes I'm not sure what that looks like until it comes along. I don't like to feel complacent in where I'm at, I’m fairly ambitious. Which I think is a good thing. Sometimes when women say that people take it the wrong way. I’m fairly ambitious in striving to do bigger, better always pushing kind of work.
What is a challenge you are working to go after this year either in your career or in your personal life?
In my personal life it has been a long time since I've been in a serious relationship, so obviously that's important to me to keep that moving as a vital part of my life. Professionally, I’m just looking for work that fulfills me and I feel is helping tell stories that aren't told every day. Which for me is mostly helping to tell women's stories. Which isn't to say that's the only kind of work I do but it's really kind of priority for me.
But if [my next project] is not about a woman, then I bet you it will be directed by a woman. That's really a priority for me -- to tell stories about women, to work with women, to mentor women and that sort of thing all across the board. To help women in all facets of this industry. Whether it's with the work itself or the people doing the work.
Yeah, sometimes these small stories, like Agnes’ story and just women's stories in general, are not on the forefront being told. Bringing them more present making them more normal, you look for that?
Absolutely! [There’s] more and more of them everyday. I want everybody to be telling women's stories. Women and people of color and queer people, anyone who's the "other" or been "other-ized" to help get those stories out there and do what I can to tell them honestly and sincerely.
Why do you think the response “that's the way it's always been done” is still so prevalent when discussing change?
Change is hard. If the status quo has worked for whoever is saying that, then it’s sometimes it’s an assumption that it's working for everybody. Often times it's very well intended, the intention is not hurtful or harmful. It’s uninformed because the way things have always been done is not working for everybody. It's definitely important to change the way things are done so that there is space for everybody, but it’s hard. It's never going to be easy, these transitions of change that the industries going through. Obviously no change is easy, but it’s all worth it in the end.
Is there a reason you encourage people to stick with change even if it is hard versus taking an easy way?
If they are well intentioned, smart people they think things through to the end and listen to those who are suggesting the change. They’ll see that there’s something there and that will help people talking about this sort of generally, that in the long run it’s better. When we are talking about the way a turnover is done or an output is done or an EDL is made, some of those things you gotta do them the same way because that's just how it works.
But when we are talking about hiring practices or the sorts of scripts that get produced, whatever it might be, I think anybody who is paying attention can see that there's amazing stories to be told, and there’s also a lot of money to be made. It's not a fluke that Wonder Woman made the money that it made, and it's not a fluke that Black Panther is about to make a bajillion dollars.
These are turning points in this industry. The powers that be will see that it's not like a fluke, it’s not random that these movies make money. These movies make money because they’re stories that people want to see. White men go see these movies too. Everybody I think once they're awakened to it and a little bit exposed to new stories will see that they are great, interesting, different, unique and really worthwhile.
You’ve seen that putting in that extra effort has had a positive outcome in many ways?
Look at a show like Transparent -- well, obviously there was a thirst for trans stories. There are a lot of trans people who are involved with making the show, and we tried really hard -- I was on it for seasons one through three -- to tell authentic stories and to listen to trans people and have them participate.
The Emmy-nominated editors of Amazon's Transparent: Christal Khatib, Sunny Hodge, Cate Haight and Hilda Rasula. Photo by Christopher Fragapane, Cinemontage Aug 2017
Again it's about making somebody the subject and not just the object of the story. I think that the work we did on that show matters and we were a part of a national conversation in terms of trans rights and trans issues come to the forefront the way they did the last couple of years. All of it is worth it of course.
What advice do you have for editors and assistants who want to make the workplace better for those who are following behind them? How has your opinion on that been shaped by working with so many female editors?
Be kind: that's my main piece of advice. Which doesn't mean being a pushover, but be kind, think of the other people who you are working with. Support the people you are working with help the people who are coming up your assistants who are coming up behind you. Mentor them, give them help and training if they need.
And do it all while you are being nice because there's no room for a**holery, and there’s no need for it either. I’ve worked with a lot of female editors, but I would say I've learned just as much from the men I've worked with too. The people who’ve really made me understand the way a cutting room should run were people of both genders. You can be kind at the same time you can be serious about your work. You can be devoted, strong, hardworking and kind all at the same time.